Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini are in rival political camps within the European Parliament. But, when they met for the first time in August, it was as if they were old friends. They embraced each other heartily and had a good laugh. Orban called Salvini, the leader of Italy's League party and the current star of nationalist politics within the European Union, a man "with whom I can share certain experiences."
That meeting attracted a lot of attention. It was the prelude to the campaign for the elections for the European Parliament — and a demonstrative gesture directed at Orban's critics in the conservative European People's Party (EPP) bloc, with which the prime minister's Fidesz has been historically aligned.
In March, after multiple high-profile rebukes, the EPP suspended Fidesz's membership after finding that Hungary's government has infringed on academic freedom, the rule of law and other norms of democracy. And now, with elections for the European Parliament scheduled for May 23-26, Salvini is headed to Budapest for the first time. Officially, he was invited by his Hungarian counterpart, Interior Minister Sandor Pinter, but the really significant part of the visit is Thursday's scheduled meeting between Salvini and Orban.
A spokesman for Hungary's government declined to comment on the agenda for the meeting. However, two weeks ago the pro-government newspaper Magyar Nemzet, which Orban often uses to release statements, reported that the politicians intend to discuss how their parties might more closely collaborate in whatever European Parliament emerges from the elections.
These days Orban is much closer to extremist parties than he is to the Christian Democrats with whom Fidesz nominally allies. In the campaign for the elections for the European Parliament, for example, Orban is propagating conspiracy theories that feature in pamphlets read by such terrorists as the man who committed the mass murders at mosques in New Zealand in March and Anders Breivik, who killed nearly 80 people in Norway in 2011.
Orban accuses the European Commission of attempting to replace Christians with "masses from a different culture and a different civilization." In recent weeks, he has repeatedly said the elections would determine the survival or downfall of civilization in the European Union, where, he believes, Christians are already discriminated against and immigrants given preferential treatment.
The prime minister has said he would rather keep Fidesz in the EPP and reshape the group according to his ideas than abandon it altogether. That way, his political influence in the European Union would be far greater than it would in an alliance with parties identified as extremist. So far, Fidesz has ruled out direct cooperation with most such parties, including the Alternative for Germany. When Interior Minister Salvini announced the European Alliance for People and Nations in Milan in early April, Orban and Fidesz were invited, but the prime minister and his party maintained a strategic distance.
Orban has been preparing for a definitive break with the EPP for a long time. For one, he has been cultivating a very close relationship with Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law and Justice party in Poland. Orban's allies also include Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania's Social Democratic Party, which is increasingly copying the Hungarian prime minister's slogans and campaigns in conflict with its own block, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats.
The alliances are Orban's backup plan. He is attempting to perfect his image as a nationalist hero — and he's proving successful, according to various opinion polls.
One longtime personal ally is the Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders, who regularly travels to Hungary to visit his wife's family and sometimes also meets with Orban in private. The politicians make no secret of their friendly relationship. The prime minister is also on good terms with US President Donald Trump's former adviser Steve Bannon, who calls Orban the "Trump before Trump” and considers him one of the most important politicians in Europe. Orban clearly has no qualms about being associated with avowed extremists — last summer he posed in a comradely way with Belgian neo-Nazis at a gathering of students in the Transylvanian town of Baile Tusnad.
After Salvini packs up, the next top-level EU nationalist to visit Orban will be Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the Freedom Party. He will be in Budapest on Monday. The Hungarian weekly newsmagazine 168 ora borrowed a title from Hollywood to characterize Orban's rapid-succession dances with EU nationalists: "Monster's Ball."